Bayou City Body Snatchers

How cold war fears fueled a hot market for Houston's human parts business.

After the radiation, patients did mechanical and mental exercises, such as moving a stick and a rudder bar to match the position of red and green lights -- a task related to piloting. Their body fluids were measured to search for a dosimeter, a biological marker that would show how much radiation they got.

After the exposure, one young test subject with testicular cancer vomited so much that he had to be carried by stretcher and required a liter of IV saline solution. Of patients who received the maximum radiation, more than a fifth died within two months; none survived more than 20 months. M.D. Anderson tended to have needy patients in the 1950s, and records indicate that many test subjects were African-Americans, or Hispanics who did not understand English well. They received no consent forms to sign; those weren't standard in medical research until the 1970s. Researchers described "an elderly and emaciated Negro male" who died 43 days after exposure -- faster than most people with his type of cancer. Scientists surmised that the radiation "hastened the patient's demise."

Today, Jim Cox, the head of M.D. Anderson's radiation oncology division, defends the study. He says it was almost certainly done for treatment purposes, and not just to help the air force. "Back then," Cox says, "radiologists either held the hand of patients" with terminal cancer "or they became therapeutic interventionists who tried to do something." Gilbert Fletcher was the latter type: "He was a very creative radiation oncologist constantly looking for new treatments for cancer."

M.D. Anderson's contract is not available, so it is impossible to know whether it was the cancer center or the air force that originated the idea of radiating patients. Cox thinks the military piggybacked onto an already planned Fletcher project. "Fletcher's studies were therapeutic," Cox insists. "He was trying to treat his patients' cancer."

But Cox's theory is contradicted by Fletcher's résumé, which is archived at Baylor and is as thick as a magazine. The résumé stretches for pages, listing scores of articles Fletcher published about his cancer research. But there is no mention of any follow-up study about what happened to the people irradiated under military contract. Fletcher and his colleagues published data about what happened to these patients right after the experiment; for instance, how much they vomited and how far their white blood cell counts dropped. But no articles are listed about how the radiation affected them in the following months or years.

Nor did the study have a control group -- a sample of cancer patients who did not receive total body irradiation -- even though such groups are required in studies of experimental treatments. Even without a control group, though, the study concluded that there was "no evidence to suggest that whole-body irradiation has influenced survival in any way." Nor was there evidence of change in the progress of the patients' cancers.

Perhaps the most ominous aspect of the M.D. Anderson study was the presence of co-researcher Herbert Gerstner. His boss, Hubertus Strughold, sent him to Houston from the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine to help with the cancer patient study. Gerstner was another Operation Paperclip doctor, smuggled out of Germany in 1949, even though officials knew that he had been a member of Hitler Youth in the 1930s. As journalist and Operation Paperclip researcher Linda Hunt revealed in a Texas Observer article, Gerstner was a Nazi Party member. He also may have participated in atrocities. In Nazi Germany, Gerstner's research specialty was the effects of electricity on human skin. He worked closely with a doctor who regularly dissected brains removed from people killed in German euthanasia centers. Given his ties with torturers and murderers, some of Gerstner's research is highly suspect, for example, a study in which a man's left hand was exposed to extreme heat while his right hand received an electric shock. Was the man a volunteer or a death-camp inmate? Gerstner told the U.S. government that his electricity-and-skin records had been destroyed during the war.

Baylor College of Medicine also did whole-body radiation experiments on scores of cancer patients from 1952 to 1964, under contract with the Air Force Special Weapons Project (which later became the Defense Atomic Support Agency). Baylor did not respond to Houston Pressrequests for comment, so there was no confirmation that cadavers of minorities still dominate its human specimen collection.

The government says it no longer does secret studies on patients and dead people, and corpses of color floating in formaldehyde tanks could be things of the past. But Houston may still have a problem with body snatching.

In 1994 Alton Arnic died of a heart attack while riding a Metro bus. His grieving family went to the funeral home and noticed a jagged scar on his head. Relatives were shocked to learn that the Harris County medical examiner's office had removed part of his brain and offered it to the Transplantation Research Foundation (see "Bitter Harvest," by Steve McVicker, January 25, 1996). Arnic had never signed a donor card, and the medical examiner's office, then headed by Jachimczyk, did not ask his family for permission to take his brain matter. When the family protested, Jachimczyk told them that under Texas law it is legal to harvest body tissue for research, even without family consent. He was right.

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